Getting Engagement

I once got in a bit of trouble with someone who, after an observation, expressed deep concern that my students had been “off task”. Had I any sense, I would have nodded sagely and agreed, asking for suggestions and methods to improve my students’ engagement level.

Alas, I lay claim to a fair amount of brains but no sense at all, and so, fatally, I looked askance at the comment. It was a Thursday afternoon, sixth period, and the kids had been on task. No, not every second, not every student, but I’d set them a difficult and challenging assignment and they’d known I was being observed. They’d jumped into a high-octane class discussion, jumping in with questions and answers, asking for clarifications, bursting with enthusiasm on cue. A fantastic performance (in the acting sense). Then they worked studiously on the handout. When they got stuck, naturally (sigh) they chitchatted until I came by and answered their questions, and then went back to work. I’d wanted the class to finish at least a quarter of the handout, to finish it up the next day. Three students finished the entire handout, over half the class finished half of it, and everyone finished the quarter I’d planned. I’d spent the last ten minutes of class, as always, going round one last time to ensure everyone was at a good stopping point for the next day. Then I went back up front, praised them for a good day’s work, reminded them of the key ideas, and told them to be ready to finish up the next day.

And so, instead of asking for suggestions and methods, I demurred—and here’s the really stupid part—told the observer truthfully that a certain amount of off-task is normal, particularly with kids who struggle with math. The trick was, I said nonchalantly, to keep them moving and minimize the off-task behavior by ensuring the students feel capable of doing the work. Like I said: no sense. No worries, though: It all ended well, if not without bloodshed.

One might think—truth be told, people who know me often do think—that I am incapable of accepting criticism. Unfair. My objections were well-founded. In fact, other teachers hearing of that conversation are filled with horror that any observer would expect 100% engagement or anything close to it with a heterogeneous class of mostly math strugglers.

But more to the point, I take all suggestions in, even as I am giving out with my objections and rationales, and they sit in the back of my mind, waiting to pounce.

Improving engagement levels is one of my top two or three concerns as a teacher, and something I think about constantly. Those who don’t worry about it teach in tracked classes, the lucky dogs. My objection to that observer was precisely on this point: the observer didn’t understand how high the engagement level was, given the audience, and how the engagement level and activity was the primary focus of the activity I’d chosen.

Much later, when I was reviewing midpoint and distance with my Algebra II kids on another Thursday, I’d noticed they were moving too slowly. I’d given them a double worksheet with lots of problems because I wanted them to gain fluency. Some of them were working hard, but too many had lollygagged through five or six on Day One, which meant my original plans for Day Two, finishing the worksheet—on a Friday no less—would be an exercise in herding cats, feeling relieved if over half the class did a few problems lackadaisically. It wasn’t so much the number of problems as the time spent focused on the work. What I needed was some sort of activity that would keep them on task the whole time.

And just then, the observer’s suggestion pounced. Not the literal suggestion made that day, of a competition during the last 20 minutes of class. Totally unworkable in my classrooms, But I’d still filed the idea away. Somewhere in that notion was a nugget I instinctively knew was useful—no, not the competition, not the last 20 minutes, god knew (just organizing it would take 10 minutes), but….and so I came up with Switch and Stay.

Flashing neon sign goes here: Despite my immediate pushback and valid objection, I did not slough off the suggestion but rather morphed it into something I could use to be more successful at engagement. See? I do listen to criticism.

But onto larger issues:

Progressives think the key to engagement is “relevant curriculum”. They’re mostly wrong, but not entirely. Eduformers think a lack of engagement is the teacher’s fault. They’re mostly wrong, too.

What most people fail to understand is that engagement, in and of itself, doesn’t lead to learning. It seems like it ought to–that’s what happens in all the feel-good teacher movies. Get the kids to care through rap and poetry slams, and suddenly they’re spouting Shakespeare and writing award-winning blogs.

Larry Cuban spells out the engagement assumptions:

  1. Motivated students will engage in academic work that teachers assign.
  2. Engaged students are attentive, participate in classroom activities, and complete assigned work.
  3. Because students pay attention, participate, and complete work, they acquire academic knowledge and skills from teachers and peers that result in classroom and school rewards further strengthening engagement.
  4. Expanded school-based knowledge and skills produce academic improvement as measured by teacher grades and standardized tests.

Cuban is focusing on engagement via high tech in the classroom, but his larger point is worth remembering: there is little evidence that supports this chain of reasoning.

I am reasonably certain that engagement leads to increased individual achievement on the margin. I am equally near certain that engagement has little to do with low test scores. I know many hardworking, engaged kids who don’t do as well as kids who tune out and show up periodically but learn a lot more in half the time with half their attention.

I just need engagement because otherwise, the kids don’t do the work. If they don’t do the work, they won’t have a chance at achieving fluency or creating memories they can access later. But all engagement gives them is a chance at that, not the guarantee of increased understanding and achievement.

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